To cross-border humanism-By I.A. Rehman

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PUBLIC opinion in both India and Pakistan is apparently relieved that the process of composite dialogue between their governments continues. Still, it is not possible to conceal one’s disappointment that the latest round of ministerial talks in Islamabad could not register progress towards bridging the divide between the two neighbours.

True, India needs to know the new government in Pakistan better to receive more evidence of its stability before committing itself to substantial measures needed to normalise bilateral relations. However, when allowances have been made for the lack of familiarity with their counterparts, the Indians could have made their latest visit to Islamabad more meaningful by at least moving towards a more sensible and humane visa regime.

This is not to belittle the importance of the new accord on facilitating consular access to Indian and Pakistani nationals in each other’s prisons. This issue has always caused bitterness between the two countries. Some recent incidents, such as the death of two Pakistan nationals in Indian prisons, greatly aggravated tensions and emboldened the traditional enemies of peace in the subcontinent to call for an end to all confidence-building measures. Even otherwise, the inhuman treatment the two countries reserve for each other’s prisoners is one of the most reprehensible consequences of their failure to live like civilised neighbours.

Under the new accord, each government will maintain a comprehensive list of the nationals of the other country under its arrest, detention and imprisonment and the lists will be exchanged every six months. Each case of arrest, detention and imprisonment of any person from the other country will be intimated to the mission concerned. Likewise, each government will inform the other of the sentence awarded to the convicted nationals of the other country. Consular access is guaranteed within three months of notice and prisoners will be repatriated to home countries within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of sentences.

While the accord is welcome as far as it goes, unfortunately, it does not go far enough. For instance, in special cases, which call for or require compassionate or humanitarian considerations, each side may exercise its discretion, subject to its laws and regulations, to allow the early release and repatriation of persons.

Quite obviously, the urge to be compassionate towards detainees who are on their deathbed or in the terminal phase of sickness has been sacrificed at the altar of the security agencies’ paranoia. If the two countries can appreciate the need for cross-border humanism replacing cross-border conflict, they should establish a mechanism for the immediate repatriation of detainees who are too sick or infirm to cause any harm to anyone. This will mark the beginning of a journey towards the ideal of an accord in future whereby Indians and Pakistanis convicted in the other country may be allowed to serve their sentences in the home country.

The unnecessarily great respect New Delhi and Islamabad pay to spoilsports in their security agencies is evident from the provision in the accord, in cases of arrest, detention or sentence, made on political or security grounds. Each side may examine any such case on its merit. This keeps the door open to security personnel’s veto in cases they may label as ‘political’ or ‘security’ matters. And one knows at what low level such matters are decided. One should like to hope that, sooner rather than later, such cases are brought under the purview of joint prisoners’ welfare committees.

It is not known whether during the negotiations preceding this accord the question of Indian and Pakistani convicts being executed in the other country was discussed. Considering the recent agitation in both countries over the possible execution of Sarabjit Singh, it should have been. A possible way out of this emotive problem could be a joint India-Pakistan declaration to abolish the death penalty in their countries. If Saarc could be wise enough to reach a regional accord on this subject, that would be even better.

The two countries’ regrettable surrender to their security apparatuses visible in the accord on prisoners is more evident in the apparent tightening of visa restrictions on both sides. Indian journalists have been prevented from attending a media training course in Lahore. Some Indian artistes who had been invited to perform in Lahore in a festival were allowed visas by the Pakistan High Commission but were unable to come because the Indian authorities did not allow them to cross the Wagah border on foot. Pakistanis desiring to visit their relations in India are now required to furnish new guarantees of return. Peace activists wishing to attend a joint convention of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum have been kept waiting for clearance by the Islamabad bureaucrats for months.

That free travel between India and Pakistan will be the most decisive confidence-building measure can hardly be disputed. But it seems political leaders on both sides are helpless in the face of obdurate bureaucrats who cannot discard the script of confrontation they have followed for decades. One of their myths is that a new India-Pakistan summit should wait till the officials have worked on something for a happy announcement. Perhaps it is time to reverse the process and move towards a meeting between the two prime ministers and give them a chance to create an environment in which all outstanding issues can be addressed. If Mr Asif Zardari really wishes to visit Delhi in Mr Nawaz Sharif’s company the sooner this happen the better. That could help.

The traditional view that disputes and differences have erased all goodwill between India and Pakistan and prevented them from cooperating with one another is becoming increasingly untenable. Far more plausible is the view that the absence of goodwill has not only prevented these subcontinental twins from approaching disputes and differences as matters that can be resolved but has also contributed to ideologisation of political matters and thus made them intractable.

It is therefore time that reliance on experts in dispute resolution was reduced and greater confidence reposed in political agents who can cleanse the people’s psyche of rancour and prejudice foolishly nourished for decades. They may be able to save the process of composite dialogue from degenerating into a tour-and-travel ritual.

Source: Daily Dawn,

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